The Sacramental Vending Machine vs The Highway to Heaven

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way …’” John 14: 1-6


Leah Libresco

When my colleague Leah Libresco enters the Church today, she will do so with the support and the presence of a sponsor.

Candidates for Baptism and Confirmation in the Catholic Church usually go through what is called a Rite of Election before their big day. During this rite, their sponsor vouches for them, affirming that they are, indeed, sincere in their desire to become Catholic.

The reason for this is ancient. In the early days of Christianity, there were those who would pretend to be converts in order to infiltrate the Church and then use the knowledge they gained to aid those who persecuted it. They were, in the parlance of the Cold War, double agents.

Back in the 1950s, there was a television show called I Led Three Lives about just such a double agent. It told the story of a man who pretended to be an ordinary citizen on the outside, was an active spy for the Communists in one of his inside identities and a double agent for the United States who was, in fact, spying on the Communists in his hidden, but true, identity. Evidently, a good many people once tried to infest the Catholic Church with their own version of I Led Three Lives  in much the same way back in the early days of Christianity.

Most Christians in those days led at least two lives; passing as best they could as ordinary citizens in their outside identity and living for Christ in their hidden, but true, identity. Thus, converts who go through the rite of election do so with a sponsor, who is a known Catholic in good standing and who vouches for their sincerity of intent concerning their desire to enter the Church.

Unfortunately, this part of the Rite of Election is no longer as archaic as it was, say, 30 years ago, not even here in the “Christian West.” More and more people seem to be attempting to enter the Church as what amounts to current-day double agents. They demand the sacraments of baptism and confirmation as if the Church was a sacramental vending machine and they’ve put in their dollar and deserve their sacrament in return.

These people approach entry into the Catholic Church with an arrogance they would never employ during pledge week at a university. The same people who will grovel and debase themselves to be part of a fraternal organization, think nothing of demanding entry into the sacraments without any requirements of genuine belief or fidelity. They are open and arrogant in their refusal to accept Church teaching.

History has made a turn into a full circle. We are once again back at a time when double agents inside the Church cooperate and aid those who want to persecute it. We have also come to a day when some of those who seek entry into the sacraments often do so with an arrogant assumption that this places zero responsibility on them to take this step with a sincere heart and genuine desire to follow what the Church teaches in their lives.

All of this makes the continuing rise in numbers of sincere conversions an even more powerful testimony to the love of Christ. One Leah Libresco is worth any number of false Christians. Leah is quite open about the fact that she is still seeking to understand certain Church teachings. Honest questioning from a sincere heart that is seeking to understand is not what I am talking about when I use phrases like “double agent.” The strongest followers of Christ grow from those who begin with honest seeking and the open hearts and minds of sincere questions.

Conversion is an on-going process. It’s a life-long process. None of us will get to the end of our growth in Christ in this life. Life in Christ is an ever-deepening miracle of love that grows and expands as we step out in our lives and live it. Questions, seeking answers to the confusions of living this faith in a fallen world, are a natural and honest part of it.

What is not honest are those who are not questioning but condemning the Church for teachings that fall afoul of the current world thinking. What is not sincere is someone who enters the Church with no interest in conversion for themselves and a hardened intention to defy the Church and support its attackers in matters of faith.

I found Christ while driving my car without any intellectual reasoning at all. Leah Libresco reasoned her way to Him in a way that reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ conversion. I think that speaks more to the kind of people Leah and I are than anything else. Jesus comes to you where you are. Then, if you give yourself to Him, He leads you gently to where He wants you to go. But the key is that you must give yourself to Him. He is the potter and you are the clay.

The Catholic Church has distilled its great wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian witness into simple, follow-able teachings that are accessible to the smallest child and challenging to the greatest scholar. I think of the Church’s teachings as a roadmap to heaven, and not just to the heavenly Kingdom but to heaven on earth as well. If we could truly follow the path of Christ in the here and now, we would re-create the paradise of before the fall.

But we can’t. Not now. Not yet. We are fallen people in a fallen world and there are tough times in life when the best we can do is just to hang on and do what God tells us. That’s when the teachings of the Church are most valuable. There are days when the confusions and griefs of life rob each of us of our judgement. There are times in every life when all we really want to do is just walk off, walk away and forget about it. Those are the times when this roadmap of Church teaching may be the only path we can see.

Go to mass. Say your prayers. Don’t lie, steal, cheat, rape, rob, kill or commit adultery. Care for the poor, stand for life, pray, even if grudgingly, for your enemies. Chose Christ by doing what He has told you to do, putting one shaky foot in front of the other … day by day by day. Stay the simple, clearly-defined course of Church teaching, and it will lead you through to the other side of whatever angst and dire is tearing at you. That is the truth of Christian living when the going gets tough as I know it.

I am not the intellectual wonderment of a Leah Libresco. I am just one of many battle-scarred veterans of living the Christian life in an openly hostile environment. In that world, sincerity and honest seeking is all.

History has made a turn into full circle and enemies of Christ attack the Church from within as well as without. But compared to the honest seeking of an honest convert who has truly found Him, they are nothing.

Welcome home, Leah. You are God’s gift to the rest of us.


  • Pingback: The Sacramental Vending Machine vs The Highway to Heaven |

  • Reluctant Liberal

    I left the Catholic Church because the Bishops continue to fail to adequately deal with the sex abuse crisis, which weakened my trust in them. That trust was broken entirely when I realized that the bishop’s teaching about human sexuality did not reflect reality.

    So I left the Catholic Church, because I was raised to equate the bishops with the Catholic Church. I didn’t want to disrespect my upbringing by picking and choosing my beliefs. But many Catholics were not raised to equate Catholicism with the hierarchy. Many Catholics remain, not just to spite the bishops, but because they love the liturgy, the sacraments, and the history. You may not think these people are good Catholics, or complete Catholics, but it is manifestly unfair to call these people enemies of the Church. Actually, the Gospel story of man who cast out demons in Christ’s name comes to mind. The disciples tried to stop him because he was not one of them. I’ll quote Christ’s response from Mark 9:
    “‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, FOR WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US.’”
    And by the way, this event comes literally five verses after the apostles are arguing about who the greatest of them was. Might this whole passage be about authority, and what it should and shouldn’t look like? You’ll probably say no, but I don’t think the placement of these stories so near each other is accidental.

    • Randy

      I think it is fair to say the passage in question does indicate that bishops and priests need good reasons to refuse someone the sacraments. The fact that he is not in their social circle is not enough. The reality is that heresy is a good reason. If you are actively teaching heresy with your words or your actions then you are an enemy of the church.

      • Reluctant Liberal

        I was objecting to equating people who dissent from the bishops as triple agents.

        Oh, and Jesus says you’re wrong. See above.

    • Ted Seeber

      Are you aware that the way the Bishops treated the sex scandals is in fact against Canon Law, and in fact has been against Canon Law since 1917?

      What bakes the Bishops any bigger sinner than anybody else who breaks Canon Law?

      • Reluctant Liberal

        They aren’t. But they claim an authority that others don’t, which makes their hypocrisy far worse.

        • Ted Seeber

          That authority isn’t “claimed”, as much as it is “forced”. Often upon men who due to their own arrogance, are quite unfit for the position by human standards. Even among the worst, they often claim that they did not seek power, yet have it thrust upon them- there’s a hidden meaning in “God saw fit to grant us the papacy, let us enjoy it!”

          And yet, the Deposit of Faith remains protected, through all attempts to destroy it.

          That alone should give us all pause.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      There are times when I write a post and then see comments which almost seem like they are talking about a different post from the one I wrote. This is one of those times. I don’t equate the bishops with the Church. I also don’t mean that every Catholic who fails to agree with every teaching is a failed Catholic. I am talking about people who defy, hate, criticize, ridicule and never support the Church in anything. They join in with every critic of the Church, no matter what the issue. Yet they say that are Catholic.
      I deal with these people all the time in my job. They are a very nasty, self-rigtheous and dishonest bunch of folks.
      I’m not certain what you are saying about the verses you refer to. I was upset about the sex scandals, too. I think one thing that helped me with it is that I came to the Church with a long history with other denominations and also secular institutions. I had also faced a lot of regrets about myself.
      The bishops who enabled child molesters to molest and assault children failed to follow Christ. It was not the first time a bishop has failed to follow Christ, and it will not be the last. I don’t say that to minimize their failings, but to simply say that they were THEIR failings.
      The real question is, will you let their failure to follow Christ lead you to also fail to follow him, only in other ways? I’m not talking here about whether or not you attend the Catholic Church. I am talking about whether or not you put Jesus first and follow Him with your life.

      • Reluctant Liberal

        Maybe I was being a bit unfair. You seem to be referring to a very specific subset of people. If that is the case, then I apologize for my hastiness (I watched Lord of the Rings today, yay Treebeard). But in your post, you mostly complained of dissenting from Catholic teaching (as handed down by the bishops, which might be the missing connection from your post to mine).

        The verses are about a person who does not acknowledge the authority of the apostles, who Christ calls the opposite of an enemy.

        The sex abuse scandal bit IS fairly removed from your post, I suppose. For me, it just represents so much of what is wrong with hierarchy in general. If the Vatican initiated an investigation into the bishops that cracked half as many heads as the one it launched against the LCWR, I am unaware of it. For me, the human tendency to enhance one’s authority and ignore one’s failings links the failures of the bishops in the sex abuse scandals to what I see as their illegitimate claim to teaching authority. (I seem to have veered off topic on this. Ignore it at your convenience.)

        My pursuit of Christ continues. I thank you for your concern for it and I sincerely wish you all the best on your own.

        Pax tecum.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Actually, I think your point about the lack of adequate response to the behavior of some of the bishops from the Vatican is well taken. It seems on par with these same bishops’ lack of response to the child-abusing priests. That does point to something endemic, although I’m not knowledgeable enough about the inner workings of the Church to say what. As I said, I find the whole thing disturbing myself.

          FWIW, I mixed too many topics in this post, which is why it’s confusing. It’s not my best work — or at least I hope it’s not. Things have been topsy turvy in my private life for the past week and will continue this way for another week or so. Then, I have another surgery on my foot. It may be a while before I get back to firing on all 8 cylinders. Apologies.

          • Reluctant Liberal

            I’ll pray for you that your surgery goes well. My wife has a chronic pain disease, and while it didn’t stop HER from bringing ME along on a trip to Morocco to study Arabic, it has given me some idea of how sweepingly disruptive physical impairments can be. Good luck!

            • Rebecca Hamilton

              Thanks for your good wishes and kudos to your wife. :-)

    • Ted Seeber

      Also, do you know the difference between the hierarchy and the Magisterium?

      Because if we go on just the hierarchy, then there were several Popes that should have destroyed the church. The ones who had orgies in the Vatican. The ones who would take slaves from the orphanages and abuse them in ways that even the most modernist liberal celibacy-hating priest wouldn’t think of today. The ones who treated the Papacy as a private bank. The one who dug up his predecessor, put him on trial, cut off his fingers, buried him again, dug him up again, and finally threw his body into the Tiber to be washed out to sea.

      There have been FAR worse bishops than the modern ones. This sex scandal stuff? MINOR in comparison.

      But nobody said we ever had to mimic what the Bishops DO, but rather, listen to them when they are doing their primary job: To protect the faith from error.

      Every Bishop, every priest who was a part of the sex scandal was breaking both tradition and Canon Law, and were heretics in their own right, practicing Cafeteria Catholicism.

      • Reluctant Liberal

        The act of laying down teaching is something the Bishops DO, and can and has been abused like all their other powers. I’ve seen a defense of the Catholic Church in the Galileo affair that it was essentially political, and if Galileo handed insulted the pope he would have been fine. That is, Galileo was branded a heretic (seemingly more a matter of doctrine) because he insulted the pope. The distinction between their actions and their teachings is not one I find convincing.

        • Dave

          We trust the Magisterium because of Jesus’ promise, period! We do not have to trust the bishops or the Pope at all. Look at Peter. He was a good man, but based on the Biblical evidence, you can find several character flaws, and he was certainly not the most “logical” choice for the first Pope. But I think he was chosen precisely BECAUSE of that. The protection of the Church’s teaching depends on Christ, not the (sometimes) scoundrels or imbeciles that are the leaders at any given time.

          • Reluctant Liberal

            I am very sad to say that I have become quite convinced that frequently the protection of the Church’s teaching does not happen at all.

            • Dave

              So, Jesus is out to lunch? He didn’t mean what He said? I studied this in pretty great detail before I converted to Catholicism and I’m not sure what you are referring to.

              If you are talking about the behavior of Churchmen, I completely agree with you. As Jesus said, even about the authority of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:2-3):

              “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”

              • Reluctant Liberal

                I don’t think Jesus meant what YOU think he said. The church, even the Catholic Church specifically, is still around. The gates of hell have not prevailed against it. That doesn’t mean that it possesses the seat of Moses or any infallible teaching authority in any form.

                So much for teaching authority in general. In particular, I left the Catholic Church because its teachings about human sexuality are simply wrong. But that is an entirely different can of worms.

                • Dave

                  Well, I would say that if error has seeped into the Church (and in fact, you are claiming that the teachings on human sexuality have been wrong since the inception of the Church, since the teachings haven’t changed), then the gates of Hell have prevailed. It is not good enough for the Church simply to exist. If it has been compromised by error, and is teaching untruth as if it were Christ’s teaching, then the Devil has indeed prevailed.

                  I think it is dangerous for a Christian to take the position that the Old Testament dispensation was superior in any way, as you seem to say when you say there is no seat of Moses or equivalent in the New Covenant.

                  Plus, there are also these statements of Christ which make no sense, if there is no teaching authority:

                  * “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

                  * “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me.”

                  And then you have this statement from Paul to Timothy:

                  * “if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

                • Ted Seeber

                  If the Magisterium didn’t exist, there is no reason why the Church should have survived Nero’s rule, let alone centuries.

                • Reluctant Liberal

                  Your interpretation of “The gates of hell shall not prevail” is lovely, but there’s little support for it in scripture. And I don’t think the Old Testament was superior, I think it was vastly inferior. And those verses you cite make your interpretation plausible, rather than necessary. The last one actually makes your position less tenable, since ecclesia meant assembly.

                  • Dave

                    It seems quite obvious to me. If causing the Church to be infested with errors and divided beyond all recognition does not constitute “prevailing”, what would? It’s also obvious because the statement regarding the gates of Hell is made immediately prior to the statement regarding binding and loosing, which goes back to Isaiah 22, signifying the full delegation of authority from the king to the prime minister. And beyond logic, we have the early Church fathers, who interpreted the statements to Peter in the same way.

                    So if the OT was vastly inferior, why is it that they had a reliable authority that Jesus said to “do whatever they tell you”, but in the NT, we have no such reliable authority?

                    • Reluctant Liberal

                      If corrupting the teachings of the Catholic Church means hell has prevailed, why doesn’t corrupting the behavior of Catholics count as prevailing?

                      Let me answer your last question with another question. Why did Christ defy the Pharisees (by healing on the Sabbath) and defend his disciples for defying the pharisees (by picking grains of wheat on the Sabbath)?

                    • Dave

                      “If corrupting the teachings of the Catholic Church means hell has prevailed, why doesn’t corrupting the behavior of Catholics count as prevailing?”

                      Because Jesus came for sinners, not the righteous. The Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners. Jesus explicitly guaranteed that the “weeds” would exist within the Kingdom and that there would be scandal. Judas, one of the Twelve Apostles, committed the worst sin there ever was or ever will be, and yet, the Church grew. As I said, the passage about the gates of Hell prevailing is immediately followed by the passage about passing on of authority in teaching and discipline (keys, binding, loosing – from Isaiah 22)

                      Christ defied the Pharisees because the transition to the New Covenant was underway, and thus He was showing that the provisional authority of the OT Covenant was passing away in favor of the greater New Covenant.

                      To see whether the Church “works”, look not to those who fail to repent and be converted, but look at those who follow the teachings to the utmost.

                    • Ted Seeber

                      Because “Do as I say, not as I do” is something every parent needs to learn.

            • Ted Seeber

              How so? And do you actually know what Church teaching is, or are you going on just the bad catechisis you had as a child that equates the epicsopate and the magisterium?

              • Reluctant Liberal

                I’m writing too many other threads to get into human sexuality just now. And yes, I know what Catholic teaching is. I’ve read Pope Benedict, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Chesterton (more than twenty books), Belloc, Anscombe, and Aquinas. Before I left the Catholic Church I lead a confirmation preparation class based on the CCC, since I found the textbook I was given inadaquate. I actually found myself explaining the Catholic understanding of natural law to a priest the other day. So yes, I know what Catholic teaching is.

                • savvy

                  It does seem like the church’s teachings on this issue are at odds with contemporary culture, but then again there is nothing new or modern about modern ideas.

                  The irony is that the early Christians were confronted with the same issues in the Roman Empire.

                  • Rebecca Hamilton

                    You’re right savvy, these same issues came up at the beginning of Christianity. They are just the pagan world, the devil, asserting himself in attacking the Jesus through us. We are weakened by our unwillingness to call this what it is. It makes it more difficult to stand against it.

        • Ted Seeber

          Galileo might have been branded a heretic because he insulted the Pope (and, BTW, the Pope, defending Copernicus against Galileo’s circular orbits, turned out to be right in the end). But I think we should examine how that same Pope treated this heretic: required his further publications to be reviewed before publication (peer review), put him under house arrest (in essence, becoming his patron, by confining him to a 47 room mansion with a complete laboratory), and encouraged him to go to confession and Mass (which Galileo did for the rest of his life) and allowed him to die in comfort of old age.

          [sarcasm on]What a horrid church that does such things to a heretic!

          • Reluctant Liberal

            Yes, because if you’re imprisoned in a BIG house, that makes it okay.

            • Ted Seeber

              St. Paul was imprisoned in a cramped cell, and was more free than any of us will ever be.

              Civilization has a right to self defense. And I notice you didn’t even comment on the fact that the Pope, supporting the equations of Copernicus, turned out to be right, and that Galileo’s perfectly circular orbits are wrong.

            • savvy

              Heliocentrism was not an article of faith. So it’s not a valid comparison to actual church teachings. Yes, I understand the lost of trust. These people failed to live up to a standard. There are those who deny the standard even exists.

              I also take comfort in the fact, that even those who do not like the church, hold her to a higher standard.

  • Pingback: The Sacramental Vending Machine vs The Highway to Heaven - The Paul Network

  • Peg

    If you read the keynote speech from this years LCWR conference you would see grave concern and the reason for reform…and sadly leaders of the type that Rebecca refers to.

    It’s taken me awhile to see this but Christ has given us a remarkable structure and protection in that hierarchy. It’s his plan to have the pope united with the bishops as Peter and the apostles. We can respect the office For its divine protection from error If not always the individual in that office.

    We’ve had some real scoundrels but Christ gave us a remedy-”get the word of God from them but don’t follow their example”. As the saying goes, you don’t leave Peter because of Judas.

    I once was one of those people Rebecca spoke about. I wanted my cousin a priest to marry us at a family reunion. We were miles away and saw my aunts priest for prep. We did not go to mass and were living together. We lied on the form that we would raise children catholic. We made fun of the marriage prep folks. We thought the priest arrogant because all he talked about was having mass at Johnny Carson’s house. In truth we were arrogant for expecting the church to give us what we wanted without any return or responsibility.

    The marriage didn’t last but I can happily say my children are being raised in the faith and I’m doing my best to explain the why’s to them so they don’t make the same mistakes I did.

    Most of our failures in understanding our church stem from the fact that we either don’t know enough to care or we don’t care enough to know. I wish us all well on the journey to find out.

  • Peg

    This may not be your favorite post Rebecca but if I understood you correctly you made some good points. There may be some confusion but good discussion areas. I didn’t quite understand fully the double agent reference because I am often unsure if the underlying root causes stem from ignorance or malice or perhaps a bit of both. I never want to assume an evil intent where ignorance exists although we have maybe all done that at one time.

    I think we can all get riled up if we feel misunderstood or by attacks on Christ or his church or by despicable actions by his leaders.
    No matter how imperfect in practice I will always marvel at this divinely protected church that for two millennia has survived all attacks-only Christ can make that happen. Thanks for the posts even the ones your not wild about.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Peg. I’ll take another shot at this after the New Year. I agree with you that the Church’s fidelity to the creeds and the core teachings of Christianity for 2,000 years stands alone and is a testament to the fact that it is protected, including protecting from the fallen people within it.